Knowing Christian Beliefs

Spiritual growth objective: Learn the foundational beliefs/doctrines of the Christian faith.


Why knowing Christian beliefs is important for spiritual growth

Good theology is essential for spiritual formation.  Nothing could be more relevant or practical for spiritual growth than knowing what is true about God and about the relationship between God and us and the rest of God’s world.

Spiritual growth requires the transformation of our minds.  The apostle Paul writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2; cf. Ephesians 4:23).”  We grow by putting on “the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator (Colossians 3:10).”

Spiritual growth requires awareness and critique of what we already believe.  Everyone has acquired beliefs about life’s major questions from a variety of sources, e.g., parents, friends, teachers, media, etc.  These ultimate questions are the issues addressed by the major religions and philosophies of life, such as:

Ultimate reality: What is the ultimate reality on which everything depends?
Origins: Where did the universe came from?
Humanity: What is a human being and how should we live?
Morality: What is right and wrong. and how do we know?
Problem: What is wrong with the world?
Solution: How can the world’s major problems be solved? 

We all have beliefs that answer these ultimate questions in some way.  Those beliefs may be vague or contradictory.  We may never have reflected deeply on what or why we believe.  Our answers to these ultimate questions may be assumptions that we absorbed from our culture without being fully aware of it.  But we all have some beliefs that shape us because they serve as a framework for our mind and a guide for our priorities and decisions.  Spiritual growth requires us to examine our beliefs to determine what we believe and if our beliefs are coherent and true.  If our beliefs are not true, then our lives are somehow being formed in a way that is out of step with reality.

Spiritual growth requires a vision pf the ways we need to grow.  As we observed on the Spiritual Growth Plans page, all change begins a new vision.  We need a clear vision of who we are, how we need to change, and what God wants us to become in order to know how to grow.

Isn’t reading the Bible sufficient to develop Christian beliefs?  Yes and no.  The Bible is the preeminent source of knowledge about God because the Bible contains God’s inspired account and interpretation of his acts in human history culminating in his ultimate revelation in the incarnation of the eternal Son of God in Jesus Christ.  However, it takes careful study and reflection to figure out how the Bible answers life’s ultimate questions and guides us to live according to those answers.  In order to understand what God wants us to know about a particular issue, we must synthesize everything that the Bible teaches about that issue and also integrate that biblical teaching with the rest of our knowledge of the world.  This is a discipline called “systematic theology” because it aims to answer questions like “What should we believe about ____?” in this systematic fashion.

Study and learn Christian beliefs

Here are some resources for studying and learning the most foundational Christian beliefs from the perspective of the Reformed Protestant theological tradition. 

J. I. Packer, Concise Theology (Tyndale, 1993).
William Edgar, Truth in All Its Glory (P & R, 2004), chapters 5-11.
Both of these books provide concise explanations of major Christian beliefs in bite-sized portions.  Packer’s book addresses a few more topics and breaks the material into separate chapters that are 2-3 pages in length.  Edgar’s book addresses slightly fewer topics overall but presents the material in a more connected fashion.  (The first four chapters of Edgar’s book also present a brief history of the Reformed church tradition from the 16th century to the present.)

The Nicene Creed
This is the 4th-century creed resulting from the church’s two first major councils that defined and expressed the doctrine of the Trinity.  It is the foundation of orthodox Christian beliefs, and it is the most universally accepted confessional statement among Christian churches around the world.  (For more background on this important creed, see Justin Holcomb, “The Nicene Creed: Where It Came From and Why It Still Matters”)

Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF)
Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC)
These documents are confessions of faith that serve as doctrinal standards for Presbyterian churches.  The version of the WCF linked here is the modern English version officially adopted by the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), the denomination of Central Presbyterian Church.  (For the original 17th-century English version, see here.)

Our World Belongs to God
This confession is a modern confession of faith adopted by the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), a denomination in the Dutch Reformed wing of the Reformed tradition.  It not only affirms classic, historic doctrines but also includes fuller sections on questions and topics related to the church’s mission that have received more attention in past century.  Comparing the Westminster standards with this more modern confession illustrates how confessional statements always reflect and respond to the historical context in which they are written.

A Reforming Catholic Confession: A “Mere Protestant” Statement of Faith
In honor of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, a broad group of Protestant theologians and pastors came together to produce a confession of faith affirming the important doctrines that unite Protestants across the diversity of their different denominations and traditions.

For help in seeing how these sources overlap and complement each other, here are two study plans that correlate sections of the books by Packer and Edgar with corresponding sections in the confessions of faith listed above.

Packer + confessions study plan
Edgar + confessions study plan

Basics of Systematic Theology
This set of video lectures by Reformed theologian Scott Swain taught at First Presbyterian Church (EPC) in Orlando.  Swain covers the doctrines of God, the person and work of Jesus, salvation, and the church, and the lectures are accompanied by complementary chapters from the WCF, other readings/articles, and short videos that augment Swain’s teaching with further explanation.

Action steps

(1)  Check your understanding.

  • Why is it important to know Christian beliefs?
  • How does knowing Christian beliefs relate to spiritual growth?

(2)  Read one of the study plans above (Packer or Edgar + the confessions of faith).

(3)  Test your knowledge.  Answer the following questions and name at least a couple of important texts in the Bible that relate to each topic.

  • What are the sources of knowledge about God?  What is the Bible? 
  • What are God’s attributes?
  • What does it mean to say that God is a Trinity?  How do we express this concept using the language of the Nicene Creed?
  • What does it mean to say that God is a creator and the world is a creation?
  • What is a human being?  How are human beings different from the rest of God’s creation?  What is humanity’s purpose and calling in the world?
  • What is sin?  What are the primary effects or consequences of sin?
  • Who is Jesus?  What makes him different from every other human being?
  • What did Jesus accomplish to save people from sin and death?  How do each of the following dimensions of Jesus’ life contribute to our salvation: incarnation, life and teaching, death on the cross, resurrection, ascension to heaven.
  • Who is the Holy Spirit?  What are the primary works of the Holy Spirit?
  • How do people receive the salvation that God accomplished through Christ?  What are the different aspects of salvation?
  • What is the church?  What are the different dimensions of the mission of the church?
  • What will God do in the future to bring his plans for creation and salvation to their ultimate fulfillment?  What does the Bible teach about heaven, hell, and the renewed creation to come?